Staying in Leveld, a picture village, a kulturlandskap, in the early Summer, I made myself a ridiculous tent. I painted it with motifs of abandoned farm equipment, old irrigation stuff and redundant ploughs. Hay bales painted in protest with unhappy faces. I took it to the woods and suspended it in the trees. It got sticky with pine sap and twigs and needles stuck to it. I slept in the woods for many nights, and as the weeks passed from May to June the flies changed and increased in number. I looked out for the day the mayflies would appear, but it wasn’t like back home. They didn’t appear all at once and drop dead the next day. It was slower here. Still, by late June, the river bend was choked with life and the forest was dense with insects and spiderwebs.
I would march down the path to the sleeping place, flailing my arms around my head, shouting at the sheep flies to leave me alone. I’d keep swinging my arms violently as I put up my hammock and net, and then dive into it and systematically squash any mygge that had followed me in. A cloud of flies – mosquitoes, mygge, sheep flies, horseflies - would hang around outside the net for at least an hour more, drawn in by my breath, and I tried to ignore them. Alone in the summer, the flies can really start to get to you.
The first night sleeping outside alone I negotiated my fears, reasoning that it was extremely unlikely a murderous man would come in the night. Even if he did, I’d hear his footsteps from pretty far away and I had a Stanley knife in the pocket of the hammock. But the bigger and more unexpected thing I faced was just how unfamiliar it was to be in this environment – not passing through on a hike, but being here, making it my home for the night, listening to the sounds of the late night birds and watching the black flecks of bats darting silently across the dark blue midnight sky, staying long enough to see one replace the other. I felt that I did not belong in this place at all, and I also marvelled at how easy it was to be here. I didn’t have to do anything, the choreography of the wood and the river progressed on its own. I realised how little I knew and how much there was to know – how many relationships this very little patch of wooded riverside contained, utterly unobserved by people and going on regardless. Apart from being very attractive to flies, I wasn’t part of it.
At night I was sleeping in the woods and by day I was working on four big new paintings, which in my head I thought of as my “Common Land” paintings, because I was collecting all these ideas about land and its meaning. I’d been devouring books which reimagine the landscape – books about land rights, trespass, Henry George, about English countercultures, the Greenham Common women, rhizomes, the dark side of the environmental movement, subsistence farmers in 19th century Norway, floods in Miami, the dust bowl.
The tent – which I managed to erect after carrying a ladder a mile down the road to help me get ropes high enough in the trees - was supposed to make me feel more like a part of the landscape. To tease out my tangled thoughts about home and Norway and this village, and how we write our history on the land, often without knowing we’re doing it. I wondered if it was acceptable to put this gaudy painted plasticky thing out in the tranquil wood or whether the locals – who I was sure had noticed my daily march down the road and disappearance into a sheep field – would be upset at this thing invading the beautiful place. It was supposed to be a little bit provocative. Tents have a symbolic value, and a political nature related to existing outside of society (by choice or not). Their use is unproductive economically and often illegal. In Norway, not so much - but what about this mad impractical thing? Nobody said anything. I made sure the hammock ropes weren’t damaging the trees. One moth got stuck to the tent and died there.
In ‘Common Land’, a series of densely populated oil paintings, alternative histories of the landscape are explored. In one painting there are ravers and pilgrims communing in ancient rites, in others underground cities of fungal growth and rhizomes, struggling bodies engaged in the fight for the commons, and lacerated hillsides predated on by picks and ploughs. These paintings are driven by a desire for new ways of representing the land, not as empty space, as the binary opposite of ourselves, but as being made by and maker of the people.
The image of the land has often been weaponised in service of nationalism, both in the UK and here in Norway. Images of the landscape are reflected back upon it as its ideal state, and the land itself begins to be shaped in the image of an idea, a perfect static nature that is wholly invented.
Landscape doesn’t show its past easily, so how do you read a landscape? How do you look beyond the ideas of nature and wilderness to find the webs of humanness that go deep and far under the soil?